A July 2005 study by the Environmental Working Group tested newborns for the largest number of chemicals ever. The analysis found an average of 200 industrial chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides already present at the moment of birth – in the umbilical cord blood. No hunger is more intense than the hunger for oxygen. For babies before birth, their entire oxygen supply comes not from their fluid-filled lungs, but through a life-and-death channel to their mothers called the umbilical cord. It starts smaller than a human hair, but by the time of birth, the umbilical cord is a sturdy lifeline is as big around as an adult finger and 20 to 24 inches long.
Very early in pregnancy, the fertilized egg floats independently, conservatively managing its own resources. Then, during a process called implantation, it burrows into the welcoming lining of the mother’s uterus. Enzymes melt away protective layers, and the two fiercely latch on to each other. This powerful connection ushers in an unequaled time of change and growth for the baby. The taps are wide open. Suddenly there is a luxurious amount of nutrition available. By Day 19 or 20 after conception, the embryo is floating, tethered to the placenta by a narrow stalk that will become the umbilical cord. The quiet, economic rearrangement of the early cells, the careful management of limited resources, gives way to overflowing surplus. By 4 months gestation, 75 quarts a day will flow through the umbilical cord. A typical blood cell will make a complete round trip every 30 seconds. Before it is finally cut, up to 300 quarts of blood a day will flow through the umbilical cord.
The umbilical cord is the living link through which a mother feeds her baby and removes its waste. The cord also becomes the conduit of an ongoing exchange, a silent conversation, where hormones from the mother and the baby signal changes in each other’s bodies.
The umbilical cord consists of three blood vessels — two umbilical arteries and one umbilical vein — embedded in slippery connective tissue called Wharton’s jelly. The arteries spiral around the vein, giving the cord the toughness of a cable. At one end of the cord is the baby; at the other is the placenta.
The baby’s heart pumps depleted blood out of its body through the umbilical arteries to the placenta. In the placenta, the arteries divide into smaller and smaller branches, finally breaking up into a network of tiny capillaries. These capillaries intertwine deeply with the mother’s blood, while staying separate. It is here that the exchange of materials — oxygen, hormone signals, nutrients, and waste — occurs. The baby’s capillaries then flow and combine into larger and larger venous blood vessels, finally joining in the large single umbilical vein. The replenished blood returns like a steady, unhindered river bringing the stuff of life to the fetus.
In contrast, the mother’s blood in the placenta forms a free-flowing, living lake that bathes the fetal capillaries. Unlike the fetal blood in the placenta that is completely contained in blood vessels, maternal blood flows into about 80 to 100 small spiral arteries of the uterus that empty wide-open into this five-ounce lake of blood. The blood in the lake is refreshed completely three or four times each minute to supply the baby’s needs.
Today, this most primal of lakes has become polluted with industrial contaminants. And developing babies are nourished exclusively from this polluted pool. They mainline the contaminants through their umbilical cord, injecting them into their veins more potently than any IV drug administration.
At the time of birth, after the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, the blood remaining in the cord is often collected and stored because it is a valuable source of stem cells. The potency of stem cells comes from their ability to transform into other tissues, organs, and systems in the body. Stem cells are “young” in the best sense of the word, and full of potential. Each stem cell is like being dealt a valuable wildcard in a game of cards.
Today, we use stem cells to regenerate people’s blood and immune system after they have been treated with chemotherapy or radiation to destroy cancer cells. Already, more than 45 disorders can be treated with stem cells from umbilical cord blood. Preliminary research suggests that stem cells hold great promise for treating important common conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. Work is also underway to use stem cells to treat diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury, among others.
This is the same valuable blood that was analyzed in this study, and found to contain a startling array of industrial contaminants. It is the blood supply that bathed and nourished every cell of the baby while her organs and systems formed. It satisfied her hunger. The cord blood is an echo of the polluted lake within. It is tangible evidence that, after the cord is cut, the industrial chemicals that the mother was exposed to are now coursing through her baby’s veins as the little one first greets the world.
We need stronger health safeguards so that babies are born free of toxic chemicals. For more information, read the full report at EWG.org.